Friday, 19 March 2010

Contemporary classical music

I discovered the music of John Adams in the early 1990’s, probably on Radio 3. At Christmas 1994 Toby gave me a recording of Adams' work played by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Simon Rattle. The disc includes the piece Harmonielehre, a 40-minute piece composed in 1985, which quickly became one of my favorites. I liked all the music but knew nothing of the composer other than that he was American, and very much alive. As the years progressed I listened out for his music, learnt a little more about him, and invested in more recordings.

There was a step-change in 2000 when I went to a performance of his opera Nixon in China at English National Opera in which my old friend Janis Kelly was singing the role of Pat Nixon. This was a revelation: modern opera, by a living composer, sung in English, on a contemporary subject – the visit in 1972 of the US President to China where he met Chairman Mao Zedong. Writing in The Times, critic Richard Morrison said “…..John Adams’s seminal “docu-opera” is still one of the most thrilling, funny, poignant and contentious music-theatre pieces written in my lifetime”. There is a full review here.

Over the following years I’ve been fortunate to get lots of chances to hear Adams’ music live, often with him conducting. His musical starting point is in minimalism, but it has developed very widely over the decades. He writes for solo piano, chamber pieces, tape machines, full symphony orchestras, and opera. I once counted 11 percussion instruments on the platform at one of his Barbican concerts.

In January 2002 the BBC Symphony Orchestra held its annual long weekend dedicated to the work of one composer, on this occasion John Adams. I soaked-up concerts, films, talks, and an interview with Adams by the SO’s boss Paul Hughes. This was a real “festival weekend” of all-things Adams.

In 2005, his second opera The Death of Klinghoffer was performed at the Edinburgh Festival by Scottish Opera (my old company). Again, Adams tells a true story, this one of the 1985 hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro in the Mediterranean by the Palestine Liberation Front. During the subsequent negotiations a Jewish-American passenger Leon Klinghoffer was murdered and his body dumped overboard.

John Adams has enjoyed a long collaboration with two London Orchestras: the BBC Symphony and the London Symphony Orchestra. His music has been programmed many times at the BBC Proms, often with him conducting. Last spring I was again at ENO to hear Dr Atomic, his latest opera. This tells the story of the development and testing of the atomic bomb at Los Alamos in 1945.

This last weekend at the Barbican Adams conducted the LSO playing the European premiere of his own symphony City Noir. And it was announced this week that a concert version of his opera El Nino, the re-telling of the nativity, will open Edinburgh International Festival.

So, plenty of great music, to give story and meaning to contemporary events and issues. But Adams can also write, and write really well.

At Christmas Toby gave me a copy of Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life written by Adams. It is a very good book in which he traces his early years in New England, student life at Harvard, his later move to America’s west coast. It is about his parent’s musical influences, his days teaching in San Francisco, his development as composer and conductor, experiments with electronic instruments, and creativity in all the arts. For me, it lifted the lid on the dark and unknown art of composing. I’ve never known how a musician starts composing, where the ideas and influences come from. Some questions are answered as he takes us through his life and development, which range widely from Wagner to Frank Zappa, with nods to Brian Eno, Linda Ronstadt, Eric Clapton and many others on the way. There is a long extract from the book here.

But there is yet more from this enormously prolific man. Sometime last autumn Lizzy Clark, my chum at BBC Radio Scotland, tipped me off about Hell Mouth. It turns out that this is the name of an excellent blog written by John Adams, as an adjunct to his own website.

I now receive it as an email, usually every week or so. This week there are three postings, one a 1600 word essay on Stokowski, the others on his concert in Paris with the LSO, again playing City Noir. It’s a lively, interesting blog, with lots of non-musical stuff about his life on the west coast: walking the dog, scouting for fungi; meeting neighbours at the farmers market, and full of cross references, links to other articles and to YouTube videos.

Finally, in a connected sort of way, there was a really great piece in the Guardian ten days ago by Lynsey Hanley. It took years. But I learned to love the riches of Radio 3. Minimalism, jazz, folk, classical – it all seemed impenetrable when I was hooked on the three-minute pop song

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